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The Salmon Festival in Klamath, California, is not serving salmon this year, with the hope of restoring a food central to area tribes

By Nick Watt, CNN

(CNN) — The Yurok Tribe’s annual salmon festival in Klamath, California, is a little different this year. Yes, there’s a noisy parade, yes there are dozens of stalls selling T-shirts and jewelry, yes there are kids wrestling it out in a traditional stick game and yes there is plenty of food.

But for only the second time in the 59-year history of the celebration, salmon is not being served.

“The smell of salmon should be in the air,” said Gerogianna Gensaw, a Yurok member whose husband is a salmon fisherman, and who feeds her kids salmon nearly every day in life. “It feels like having a party, but your favorite person isn’t there.”

Salmon are central to the Yurok, whose territory stretches 40 miles or so up the Klamath River from this beautiful, rugged coast.

“The word ney-puey, the word for salmon, the literal translation is, ‘what we eat,’” said Frankie Myers, co-chair of the tribe. “That gets to the heart of it.”

The Yurok have stopped fishing for salmon, hoping it will help the devastated population bounce back. Hence, the lack of salmon to eat at the festival.

“There’s only about half the salmon returning that we need to sustain the current population,” said Brook Thompson, a member of the tribe so dedicated to healing her ancestral lands she spent years studying to become a hydrological engineer. “And that’s why salmon fishing was shut down completely this fall.”

The salmon here have been suffering since the Gold Rush of the 1840s, when prospectors from around the globe descended and ripped the hills and rivers apart in search of a fortune. Scarred and stripped escarpments slid into the rivers, miners dredged their bottoms and left the banks littered with huge piles of rock tailings, the detritus of their process, shrinking critical habitats.

Water temperatures have risen, water has been diverted to feed big cities, drought has taken a toll, pollutants have poisoned fish and dams built to generate hydropower have stopped many salmon from returning to their upriver birthplaces to spawn

Salmon populations are a fraction of historical levels, according to the most recent report from the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

But despite a lack of the sweet smell of cooking salmon at this year’s festival, there is a festive air. Because this year the Yurok are celebrating their efforts to right all those wrongs, and to make the Klamath River and her tributaries teem with salmon once more.

After a huge fish kill twenty years ago, when toxins killed tens of thousands of salmon, the Yurok mobilized to fight against the dams. And they’ve won. One dam was just destroyed, after federal regulators approved the plan. Three more will follow next year. One bustling troupe in the festival parade reenacted the destruction with what looked like a bedsheet painted to look like a dam, a cartoonish block of TNT and plenty of cardboard salmon.

But the Yurok did not stop there. Dams are not the only problem. Far inland on the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath, shows us a scene that looks, at first glance, like brutal environmental destruction.

“This will be the flood plain,” said Myers. As bulldozers scoop up bucket loads of stones, he said it is the opposite of destruction. It is a collaboration between various agencies and entities to restore this river.

“When I look out and I see our tribal members running these excavators … they’re fighting for their right to exist,” said Myers. “Because our stories tell us that without the salmon in the river, there’s no need for us to be here.”

The excavators are blocking the deep riverbed dredged by miners years ago. They are trucking out all the tailings. They are recreating the conditions that once allowed the river to pick its own path, to meander and move from year to year.

Humans have an essential role in shaping the landscape, Myers said.

“This is the problem right here, you are the problem!” Myers said with a broad smile. “You have an idea that there is a wilderness that existed before you showed up before people showed up. And the truth is, it never existed. The wilderness never existed on this continent.” This land, he says, was always managed and nurtured by Native Americans. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Myers, by deploying what he calls, “good medicine.”

And he is confident of success. Myers believe salmon could return to this stretch of water perhaps within weeks.

Back at the Salmon Festival Oscar Gensaw, whose wife Gerogianna is still missing the smell of salmon in the air, takes us to the pit where he should be cooking up to 80 fish. But this year the pit is empty, save for a few symbolic chunks of one dam, which has already come down. There are three more to go.

“We’re hopeful that when the dams come down again,” he said. “This pit will be full again.”

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